GOP doesn't have a clue -- but Bannon does

Steve Bannon season of war GOP values voters sot_00002129
Steve Bannon season of war GOP values voters sot_00002129

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Story highlights

  • Mark Bauerlein: To grasp why many warm to Steve Bannon's war talk, listen to Paul Ryan using "inclusion" and other liberal catchwords
  • Bannon gets that the right hears such accommodation from GOP as assault on the patriotic, religious beliefs that they prize

Mark Bauerlein is a professor of English at Emory University, senior editor of the journal First Things and author of "The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future; Or, Don't Trust Anyone Under 30." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN)Anyone who doesn't understand why so many people have been aroused and inspired by Steve Bannon's culture "war talk" should listen to the Paul Ryan interview on "Face the Nation" a few weeks back. It offered a perfect example of what frustrates them about the Republican leadership. Prompted by host John Dickerson on the issue of race relations, the House speaker advised President Donald Trump and other leaders to change their adversarial ways.

Mark Bauerlein
He said: "I think what matters is that we have to show people that we are an inclusive society that ... we want everyone to succeed. And I think there's more that all of us as leaders have got to do to be inclusive with people and make people feel like they're included in society ... We've got a lot -- a long ways to go, just as a society and a country for that."
"Inclusion," stated here in different ways three times, is the third catchword in the liberal lexicon, along with diversity and tolerance. It tumbles easily out of the mouths of activists, politicians, celebrities, and academics. Why Paul Ryan?
    Because the GOP adopted it five years ago. In its post-mortem on the 2012 election, a 100-page report entitled "The Growth & Opportunity Project", the party examined why it failed to win the White House that year and what it must do in the future to beat the Democrats. Much of it, though, could have come right out of a Democratic Party diversity plan.
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    "We need to campaign among Hispanic, black, Asian, and gay Americans and demonstrate that we care about them, too," it said. The party can still push tax cuts, deregulation, and muscular foreign policy, but "when it comes to social issues, the Party must in fact and deed be inclusive and welcoming."
    The Project called for an "Inclusion Council," which would boost membership of "traditionally under-represented groups and affiliations." It impressed younger politicians with "the importance of a welcoming, inclusive message in particular when discussing issues that relate directly to a minority group."
    One has to wonder at the cluelessness of leaders who didn't realize that this outreach to "other" identities would impress the base as just more identity politics with a benign sheen. Social and religious conservatives, along with American workers who've been damaged by open borders and free trade, know well that "inclusivity" has been a hammer used against them.
    You won't compromise your church's doctrine and accept same-sex marriage? You're not inclusive. You shy away from transgender bathroom rules? You're not inclusive. You want to reduce immigration because you think it lowers your wages? You're not inclusive.
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    For their own leaders to adopt this liberal idiom is more than the people who ended up in Trump's camp could stand. It's been infuriating. The Republican establishment assumed that it could talk the liberal social talk, but still push conservative economic policy. Ryan thinks that inclusive means "not being racist and sexist," that's all. But the disaffected voters hear something else: an assault on the limits and distinctions that give structure and meaning to their lives.
    Liberalism's triumph was to have framed those religious and patriotic beliefs as bigoted and undemocratic. Black Lives Matter, LGBT advocates, Hollywood figures, Justice Anthony Kennedy et al say that people who share them should be ashamed of themselves for being Evangelical Christians and American nationalists. And the party leadership has never come to their defense.
    Donald Trump did, and so has Steve Bannon. Trump broke every rule in the 2012 playbook, and Bannon's martial rhetoric is the opposite of the genial "welcoming" it commanded. The ones who voted for Trump and now back Bannon's agenda don't want to hear anything more about niceness. Why play ball with people who despise us? They're tired of being told to lighten up on God and country, family and home.
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    "You've had a bellyful of it," Bannon told the Values Voter Summit, "and you're taking your country back." Be proud of your Judeo-Christian values, he declaimed, Western civilization is not a hate crime!
    Bannon dignifies the people whom liberalism deplores. Mitt Romney didn't. Bannon elevates them to the status of troops in a war within. "Y'all didn't start it," he opened. "The establishment started it."
    The showdown with "progressive Democrats" and the Southern Poverty Law Center is a different theater and it can wait, Bannon said. For now, it's the top appeasers and compromisers on the right who must go. You can't fight an opponent as powerful and rich as Democratic liberalism if your own generals have already accepted the other side's terms.